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Rooftop solar poses blackout threat to WA’s main power grid

Rooftop solar poses blackout threat to WA’s main power grid

Extraordinary powers designed for emergencies such major power plant failures or bushfires are being triggered to protect WA’s main grid from soaring output generated by rooftop solar panels.

In comments to a Parliamentary inquiry, the body that runs the south-west electricity system has warned the market can no longer cope with the solar power being pumped out during certain conditions.

Experts have warned a looming crunch may lead to increased risks of blackouts and higher power costs for consumers.

There is now almost 1000MW of solar powered generation across the south west interconnected system — the biggest single source on the grid — with about 200,000 installations on households.

At issue is the uncontrollable way rooftop solar power floods on to the system, which is making it increasingly difficult for the market operator to maintain the high-wire act of keeping the grid “balanced”.

This requires supply — or generation — to almost perfectly match demand from households and businesses at all times to ensure voltage and frequency rates are kept strictly within safe levels.

The Australian Energy Market Operator said the output from solar was so significant at times — particularly on mild, sunny days when demand for electricity was low — it was driving demand to negligible levels.

As a consequence, AEMO said it was having to occasionally invoke “high risk state” operating procedures to force base-load coal- and gas-fired generators to switch off to prevent the grid from becoming dangerously overloaded.

Cameron Parrotte, AMEO’s executive general manager in WA, told a Lower House inquiry into so-called microgrid technologies the powers were only supposed to be used sparingly and for exceptional circumstances.

But Mr Parrotte said while AEMO could control traditional generators by telling them to dial down or switch off their output to ensure the grid was kept in balance, it had no such power over solar generation.

And he said the situation was likely to get worse, with installation rates for solar running at about 180 MW a year.

It was only a matter of time, he indicated, before AEMO would regularly need to use high risk powers to make sure the lights stayed on unless there were changes to the market.

Among them were encouraging greater uptake of storage capacity such as batteries to soak up excess solar generation and overhauling regulations to make the market more flexible.

“How long that construct can stay and provide the signals that it needs to with a market flowing onto mums and dads and others with (solar panels) and batteries is the really interesting one that is going to have to start to pan out,” Mr Parrotte said.

“Do we have the powers we need? Yes, but again, that should really only be a backup.

“We do not want to go into a world where these sorts of things are happening that we call high risk and putting the market aside, which tends to be inefficient because it is only meant to be there on the odd occasion.”

The West Australia

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